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Jonah: The Exception that Proves the Rule

The most common popular image of the prophet is that of the lone voice crying in the wilderness, speaking to the community on behalf of God: “Thus says the LORD.”
We often miss the other side of the coin, the image of the prophet speaking to God on behalf of the community.

But both roles were part of the portfolio of biblical prophets, and the Book of the Twelve confirms this by including a narrative about an inadequate prophet in order to prove the point.

The LORD calls Jonah to journey to Nineveh and announce that divine judgment was imminent against the capital of the bullying super-power Assyria – a land that in Israelite eyes was an emblem of idolatry and immorality, and a cradle of sadism.

The comical exploits of Jonah begin when the prophet flees, presumably from his village in central Samaria (2 Kings 14:25) as far as he can in the opposite direction from Nineveh.

Throughout the story, the piety and obedience of every phylum within creation – humans such as the Phoenician sailors and the inhabitants of Nineveh, beasts of the field such as the Assyrian livestock who fast and don sackcloth, the biggest fish in the sea, the sea that storms and calms at the LORD’s behest, creepers such as the worm that devours a castor bean plant that gave Jonah shade, and that plant-yielding seed itself – is contrasted with the contrariness of the prophet.

But, once the “big fish” vomits Jonah back onto shore, the prophet does make his way to Nineveh and delivers the message of judgment in his best imitation of his Ephraimite prophetic hero Elijah (there is a Jewish tradition that Jonah was among the disciples of Elijah).

“Within forty days Nineveh will be turned upside-down!” (Jonah 3:4).

But the story confounds all the stereotypes. The Ninevites repent.

And it is here that we finally learn what bothered Jonah about this entire assignment. It was not that Jonah was reluctant to leave the comfort of home or was afraid of the consequences of bearing bad news.

Jonah knew that divine anger was inseparable from divine love, and the impassioned expansion of the LORD’s emotional horizon to include Nineveh threatened his most cherished marker of identity, “chosenness.”

So, when the Ninevites turned from their sins and the LORD turned from the course of punishing them, Jonah “became very angry.” “I knew that you were a gracious God and merciful,” (Jonah 4:1-2), he said. 

The LORD is essentially beneficent and also serious, enforcing the tough love of moral cause and effect. Morning by morning, the LORD releases the sun to run its course; evening by evening the LORD lets the moon out for its nocturnal stroll.

There will be evening, there will be morning, today, and the next day, and the next, no matter the violence of the creatures.

But, between the morning and evening, there will be the day, the Day of the LORD, the Day of Judgment, the Day of Kingdom Come, the Day when the mountains are leveled and the valleys raised, the proud abased and the humble exalted.

And the prophets had a sacred duty during the Day of the LORD when the Divine Anger threatened to burn hot and out of control to remind the Deity of his essential mercy.

This is the true genius of the Hebrew prophets – their intercessory role, their mediating function between God and Creation. The way the prophets massaged, cajoled, shamed and used every rhetorical trick they had at their disposal in order to move God from the light and heat of day to the benedictionary calm of God’s evening, vespers-time stroll through the Garden.

We are accustomed to the prophet’s address to the community, “Turn, repent.” But, as hard as it is to stand outside the community, alienated from the crowd, and say, “Thus says the LORD,” it is even harder to stand up to God and say, “Don’t judge them according to their deeds; deal with them according to your abundant mercy.

After all, they are your people. You can’t do that Noah thing all over again, destroying the world and starting all over again every ten generations.”

This is the Jonah Principle.

It is so easy to spout off, and write a letter to the editor, and see the mote, and from some elevated moral high ground and raised level of consciousness “let ’em have it.” But that is not a prophet. That is a bore.

The true mediator must deliver the message of judgment, of moral cause-and-effect, of justice and righteousness, but also so deeply identify with the community that he or she would turn to God and plead their case, firmly resolved come-what-may to share their fate. Jonah only wanted half the job.

Gregory Mobley is professor of Christian Bible at Andover Newton Theological School. This column is an excerpt from his book, “The Return of the Chaos Monsters: and Other Backstories of the Bible” (Eerdmans, 2012). It’s available on Amazon.com.

Editor’s note: Mobley’s previous columns on the Hebrew prophets can be found here and here and here.